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Over Easy: CA State water regulators adopt unprecedented water conservation mandate

“The Face of Severe Drought”

Yesterday, the California State Water Resources Control Board voted to approve a mandate to reduce urban water use by 25%, by setting standards that apply to water suppliers. Using a nine-tiered framework based on per capita water use, the Water Board will assign water suppliers to a tier and a target goal for water use reduction that ranges from 8-36%. There are no specific use reduction targets for commercial, industrial, and institutional users served by urban and all other water suppliers. The suppliers will have to decide where to cut and where to not cut, to meet their goal. For example:

The Smith family of three learns that their water district must reduce water use by 12 percent. A manufacturing plant uses 20 percent of the water and cannot reduce its use. So, residents are told to reduce their use by 15 percent to meet the overall 12 percent target. The Smith family uses an average of 210 gallons per day (or about 70 gallons per person), 165 gallons for indoor use and 45 gallons for watering their small yard. To meet the 15% reduction requirement they must reduce total water use to about 180 gallons per day. This is equivalent to about 60 gallons per person per day.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, this is the first time in the state’s history that the Water Board has passed mandatory urban water limits. In addition to mandates for suppliers with heavy water use tiers subject to higher target percentages, other restrictions and prohibitions in the Executive Order apply to all Californians. Some restrictions are new and others were already implemented on a voluntary basis. One of the first things that people will likely have to do to curb water use is to allow lawns to go brown:

  •  Irrigation with potable water of ornamental turf on public street medians is prohibited;
  • Irrigation with potable water outside of newly constructed homes and buildings not in accordance with emergency regulations or other requirements established in the California Building Standards Code is prohibited.
  • These are in addition to the existing restrictions that prohibit:
  • Using potable water to wash sidewalks and driveways;
  • Allowing runoff when irrigating with potable water;
  • Using hoses with no shutoff nozzles to wash cars;
  • Using potable water in decorative water features that do not recirculate the water;
  •  Irrigating outdoors during and within 48 hours following measureable rainfall;
  •  Restaurants from serving water to their customers unless the customer requests it.
  • Additionally, hotels and motels must offer their guests the option to not have their linens and towels laundered daily, and prominently display this option in each guest room.
  • It will be very important as these provisions are implemented to ensure that existing trees remain healthy and do not present a public safety hazard.
  • Guidance on the implementation of both prohibitions will be developed.

The California drought is entering its fourth year. The Sierra’s snow pack that feeds into reservoirs and supplies one-third of California’s water is at only eight percent of its yearly average. If the drought continues, will it be possible for even the most drastic urban conservation measures be enough to continue to meet the needs in California’s large agriculture sector? Governor Brown has so far exempted farmers and large-scale agriculture from water use restrictions.  But as the reality of a possible no-end-in-sight to this historic drought sinks in, some are beginning to question the idea that the state is so agriculture-intensive, since a good deal of our food supply depends on it.

Why do we grow so much of our produce in one place? And why California?

“There’s plenty of good soil elsewhere,” Richard Walker, professor emeritus of geography at the University of California, Berkeley, told ThinkProgress. “But it’s the ability to put water on [that soil] over a long, dry summer that allows you to get very quick results.”

When it comes to irrigation, California is a powerhouse. Some 9 million acres of farmland are irrigated each year, making California the state with the second-largest amount of irrigated land (behind Nebraska).

Yesterday the Los Angeles Times reported that at least 12 million trees have died in California’s national forests, as a result of drought, and drought-related stress.


The End of California?

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Gary Robertson on flickr.

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